We’ve never seen images of space as astounding as those from the James Webb Space Telescope, which shared its first cosmic vistas in July. The pictures have left us dazzled, awestruck and excited for more. They also inspired us to reflect on the top space images past and present. These images have moved us because of their drama, beauty or significance. Here’s how eight Science News staffers answered the question: What’s your favorite space image of all time?
Apollo 8 Earthrise, taken in 1968
Lisa Grossman, astronomy writer, chose Apollo 8’s Earthrise as her top space image. She says: The you-are-there, sci-fi-but-it’s-real feeling of seeing Earth over the edge of the moon gets my imagination going. And something about having the surface of the moon in the image gives me deep chills. I can imagine my own feet in those gray craters, my own eyes looking back at my own Earth. It’s wild. It’s eerie. I love it.
I feel similarly about the selfie images from the Mars rovers; here’s NASA’s Curiosity rover at Mont Mercou in 2021.
You can see the rover and the landscape behind it. That’s our robotic avatar on that planet, rolling around doing our work. Though I’m lukewarm about sending people to do extraterrestrial exploration – I think the risks outweigh the scientific benefits – I have always been a sucker for imagining living on another world. Or at least visiting.
JWST’s close-up of Neptune, taken in 2022
Nikk Ogasa, staff writer for physical sciences, says: There are so many awe-inspiring space images out there, but my favorite from this year was the James Webb Space Telescope’s heavenly shot of Neptune. It is stunning. The image captures the planet’s near-infrared glow in unprecedented detail. Not only can you see the glorious rings, but you can also pick out high-flying methane clouds as bright streaks. It blows my mind that we can see clouds on another world that is billions of miles away.
Pillars of Creation, first captured in 1995
Two members of our team selected the Hubble Space Telescope’s second view of the Pillars of Creation, taken in 2014, as their top space image.
Design director Erin Otwell says: My top space image is the Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula. It’s my choice because of the awe-inspiring details and the painterly quality of the composition. To me, this image sums up the feeling of studying the cosmos and of creation itself. The towers of gas and dust where new stars are being born compose an almost solid-looking figure. It looks more like a hand than pillars.
Maria Temming, assistant editor at Science News Explores, says: I know that claiming the Pillars of Creation as my favorite space image is like saying Starbucks is my favorite coffee. But I don’t care! I love it. I have something of a sentimental attachment to this vista, since it was on the cover of the Great Courses intro to astronomy DVD set that first sparked my interest in space science.
The iconic, candy-colored images of the pillars in visible light are not the only versions that Hubble has captured. In 2014, the space telescope also took a ghostly picture of the scene in infrared light (above). Light at infrared wavelengths shines through the pillars’ gas and dust, revealing the baby stars swaddled inside these clouds.
Thomas Digges’ view of the universe, published in 1576
Tom Siegfried, contributing correspondent, chose this diagram as his favorite space image. He says: When Copernicus displaced the Earth from the center of the universe, he pictured the stars as occupying a sphere surrounding the planets that orbited on smaller spheres surrounding the sun. But Thomas Digges, an English astronomer who defended Copernicus, believed the stars extended far beyond the solar system.
In this image, published in 1576, Digges depicted numerous stars beyond the spheres of the planets, suggesting that the universe was “garnished with lights innumerable and reaching up in spherical altitude without end.” With these words Digges was the first follower of Copernicus to suggest that the universe encompassed an infinite expanse of space.
The Milky Way’s black hole, released in 2022
Helen Thompson, associate digital editor, says: Is it extremely blurry? Yes. Is it not even the first time we’ve imaged a black hole? Also yes. But it’s the black hole in our galactic backyard, and we’d never seen it before. There’s something mind-blowing and kind of heartwarming about seeing it for the first time. The Event Horizon Telescope’s first image of Sagittarius A* might not be as pretty as James Webb’s fancy-schmancy pictures, but all of the difficulties that come with imaging black holes and especially this black hole make it so compelling.
Gravitational lensing of quasar 2M1310-1714, captured in 2021
Elizabeth Quill, special projects editor, says: Within the ring of light at the center of this image are a pair of distant galaxies and a much more distant quasar behind them. The mass of the galactic duo is warping the fabric of spacetime, bending and magnifying the quasar’s light to form what are four separate images of the quasar, each sitting around the ring. It’s a visually powerful example of a phenomenon known as gravitational lensing, which was predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity before it was ever observed.
My top space image wows me every time. How incredible that the universe works this way. How incredible that the human mind, a motley product of the universe, could foresee it. And not only foresee it; today’s scientists use gravitational lensing as a tool to study otherwise inaccessible regions of space. It’s both humbling and empowering.
Pale Blue Dot, taken in 1990
Christopher Crockett, associate news editor, says: My favorite space image of all time isn’t of a colorful nebula, or a glittering galaxy, or even a certain supermassive black hole. It’s a single dot, seemingly ensconced in a shaft of light.
After completing its tour of the solar system in 1990, NASA’s Voyager 1 looked back and took a series of parting images – a “family portrait,” it was called – of several planets orbiting our sun. One of the images, which came to be known as the “pale blue dot” photo, captured Earth as seen from roughly 6 billion kilometers away — the most distant image of home anyone has ever taken.
The image, updated with modern image-processing software and re-released in 2020 (above), remains a reminder of why we explore the universe. Yes, we want to better understand how space and time, stars and planets, galaxies and superclusters work, because we’re curious. But all those questions ultimately come back to trying to understand where we come from and how we fit into all that surrounds us.
As Carl Sagan emphasized, nothing better captures just how tiny we are in the grand scheme of things than seeing our entire planet reduced to a mere speck of light.
When I used to give public talks about astronomy, I almost always closed with this image. And I would usually read from Sagan’s reflections on it:
“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.… on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.… There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”